The best way to introduce you to our band, Alathea (pronounced uh-LAY-thee-uh), would be to invite you out to our cabin. To get here, you'd have to drive to the eastern edge of Tennessee, into the Cherokee National Forrest, and alongside Indian Creek. When you pull into our driveway, a fluffy, black mutt will greet you with a not-so-gruff bark and half a tail. His name is Thumper, and he's likely to wrap you around his little white paw-it seems to happen to the best of us.
Now, get comfortable. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, come on out to the porch, and we'll lead you down the road that brought us here.
Six years ago, Carrie Theobald, Mandee Radford and I (Cristi Johnson) were college students who started hanging out with each other because we were all hanging out with teenagers. We were volunteering with Young Life, a ministry focused on high school students who would probably never show up at church. Young Life is primarily a relational ministry-we spent hours a week at ball games and cafeteria lunches hoping to "earn the right to be heard." Eventually, a student would ask, "Why do you spend time with us?" To which we could answer with the life-changing story of Jesus.
We also attempted to answer that question through our weekly programs and our summer camps. The hope was to flesh out the love of the gospel in everything, especially in our relationships with each student.
During one winter break, we got in a car to go to a leadership retreat in Florida. We played the Shawn Colvin cover of "Every Little Thing He Does is Magic" about every 10 miles, driving the poor guy in the car with us crazy. The next day Mandee pulled out her guitar and played some songs she had written, and Carrie and I started singing along. It felt like magic to us. People would come in and out of the room saying, "You all should be a band." We thought it was a funny joke, but we spent every spare hour from then on serenading Mandee's guitar.
Carrie, who was born in South Dakota but grew up in East Tennessee behind the seminary where her dad works, was an art major at Milligan College. She was waiting tables at a coffee shop, teaching piano and gymnastics, and working on her senior art exhibit. She had a history of piano and vocal lessons, choir, and a year of flute in her elementary school band.
Mandee started writing songs when she was 16 after her dad bought her a guitar from a J.C. Penney department store. She practiced that guitar every day. One day after she played her dad a song, he asked who wrote it. When she said, "I did," he took her straight to the music store to pick out a new guitar. She landed at Milligan College in Tennessee after living in Florida for six years, Kentucky for six years, and Ohio for six years. She was busy as a pre-med. major, following her older sisters-one who is a doctor and one a dentist.
I was working on a degree in English and Psychology at East Tennessee State University, and my experience with music came from my family. Family time at our house usually meant singing around the piano with my mom playing or my dad or my aunt, and everyone else would find a part to sing. I had no idea that every family didn't do the same.
On an ordinary day, I would pick my two friends up at Milligan - Carrie covered with paint, Mandee at the dissecting lab-and we would go and spend some time with students and then we'd find a place to play music. A strange thing happened when we played our music together for those same students we'd been trying to reach. Somehow in a single song, an immediate connection happened, and the music earned that right to be heard. What had taken us months to do seemed to happen mysteriously in a moment. We were convinced that God was strangely at work.
The first time we formally played ("formally" meaning "in front of people"), we were the opener for a concert at Milligan, and we were told we needed a name for our group to put on the posters promoting the show. Carrie asked her dad, who knows Greek, to tell her some Greek words. When he said "Alathea," she said, "That's pretty-what does it mean?" He said, "Truth." She scribbled it down on all the posters, and that was the beginning.
When "Alathea" stuck, it became a scary thing for us to try to be the truth or to represent it or even to claim that we know it, when it's all still so Greek to us. Our hope and prayer is not that people will equate us with the truth, but will see God as the truth, "seek Him, and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us" (Acts 17:27).
He has stayed close and true to us through these last five years of full-time travel. The road has taken us hundreds of thousands of miles back and forth across the country to whoever invited us to come and play, from churches and colleges to retreats and coffeehouses to car dealerships and weddings. We're not sure why, but something in the music seems to connect with all ages and backgrounds. And we love it because we get to absorb life from each group - energy from the jr. high to wisdom from the senior adults. College students may still be our favorites just because they're typically seeking out a personal faith and a meaning, and they're asking important questions about the direction of their lives.
One of the more unusual things about us is that we live in community, meaning that we live in the same cabin and share the same tube of toothpaste, but not toothbrushes. We've had one vehicle (we sold the others to buy sound equipment) since we started traveling, and we pull a trailer loaded with all of our stuff, which includes all of our accumulated instruments like guitars and a mandolin, harmonicas and a flute, water bottles and a wash board.
Since none of us grew up planning to be musicians, we all brought to the table different mediums that seem to complement the music. Carrie continues to be involved in all of the artwork, from CD covers to T-shirts to posters to stage paintings. I get to work on things like this bio and other written correspondence. Mandee can lecture on the anatomy of cats (but we don't let her).
We've learned things like accordion and lap dulcimer, and how to make good use of bad directions and what not to eat in the corner store along the way. Even more, we've learned how to hang on as God pulls us along, sometimes excited and sometimes terrified, but always held by a way and a truth bigger than our own.
Rocketown became an extension of something bigger than what we could do alone. We had been meeting with Don Donahue for a while, cheering him on for being a label that supports song-writing artists. He had been cheering us on as independents. One day, we played him some songs that we had been working on, and something just clicked - it was time for us to work together. We can't imagine working with a greater group of people or artists. It's humbling to be invited into the family.
What Light Is All About is our third CD - our first with Rocketown - and our most telling group of songs. We wanted everything about the recording to be honest and true to the music, from the instrumentation to the artwork. We were even able to record some of the album at the cabin. In an age of waste and trend and endless change, we wanted to offer something that connects with the simple, changeless needs of the human heart.
And that's our story. Or at least the start of it. We hope that this cup of coffee with you will be the first of many as we continue down this road together.